Gronkjaer's send-off for Ranieri
Chelsea 1 Leeds United 0
Sunday 16 May 2004
They paraded the silverware at half-time. Unfortunately it was Chelsea Ladies with the booty - a couple of trophies landed in their own resurgent season. Nothing less than a jug or two would have saved Claudio Ranieri's pancetta, however realistic that ever was; probably not very.
A win was necessary - as a farewell and a flourish - and it came from the unlikely, maligned, pre-Abramovich Jesper Gronkjaer, who is also thought to be on his way. It was the second year running that he had scored winning goals on the final day, although, unlike last time, Champions' League qualification did not depend upon it. That had already been secured in Chelsea's best finish since 1955. Leeds, like Chelsea, are potless but in more than one sense. Here they were, at times, shamefully clueless as well. Defiance was an after-thought.
Although nothing depended on the result, there was the deliciously cruel irony of today's nouveau riche (thanks to the wealth of one man) in contest with yesterday's (achieved disastrously on the never-never). There is no guarantee that either is ever going to be any more than temporary and there should be a salutary shudder for Chelsea's fans when they contemplate Leeds' plight.
The scale of that predicament was spelled out clearly by Leeds' stand-in manager, Kevin Blackwell. Afterwards he predicted that just eight of the club's present playing squad would remain. "Most of the lads will never go home on a Leeds United bus again," he said. Minibus next season, then. Many, it appeared, had reluctantly come in the first place to take part in this match.
None more so than Alan Smith, who brought a sorry end to his Leeds career with a disinterested performance which was heckled by travelling fans irked by his link to Manchester United. Not once did he make a challenge. Smith's response, his only act of the game, was a single finger gesture. "Manchester United and Leeds are not the best of friends," said Blackwell. "But I don't think he deserved any criticism." He did for this game.
It was his final one and it was also Ranieri's, his 199th in charge, and he tinkered one last time with Glen Johnson an interesting and successful participant as, effectively, a right-winger in a fluid formation that went from 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 and back again. Leeds, in contrast, simply battened down the hatches and hoped for the best. That included four changes with Jason Wilcox making his first appearance since August but doing little while the goalkeeper, Scott Carson - thrown in for the fire-sale asset Paul Robinson - had an outstanding, confidence-building match. Blackwell rarely looked like sharing the spoils despite a late free-kick from substitute Jermaine Pennant which thudded back off a post with Carlo Cudicini left bewildered.
Chelsea should have put the game out of sight before then and although they - astonishingly - achieved a 30th clean sheet in victory, they again failed to provide the killer football that Roman Abramovich has demanded. Where was the volley from the edge of the area to put the icing on a 5-0 trouncing? It was either flying into the stand or residing in cloud cuckoo land.
Leeds were on the back-foot throughout. Shots rained in and mainly over. First Joe Cole's right-footed drive looped off Lucas Radebe and was brilliantly tipped over, and then William Gallas wasted a free header. Eidur Gudjohnsen - as is his maddening habit - wastefully scooped crazily from Johnson's floated pass, headed over from Gronkjaer's precise cross and thumped a shot narrowly wide. Cole tried his luck from 25 yards but again it was tipped over.
It was only a matter of time and when Johnson broke down the right Gronkjaer burst to the far post and dived low to head in for his third goal in three games. Confidence is an elusive, wonderful thing and the Dane combined forcefully with Wayne Bridge thereafter.
Half-time did not puncture the pressure. Cole, with exquisite footwork, provided for Frank Lampard whose header just cleared the crossbar. It was a show-pony trick by Cole but, for once, with a thoroughbred's delivery. Unlike his own attempted finish moments later when he collected Johnson's short pass only to curl the ball over. Carson spilled Lampard's shot and held on to Gudjohnsen's drive before Cole skied a last opportunity provided by the energy of Gronkjaer.
No more goals would come. Ranieri was denied that emphatic win. The Italian himself provided some flair - withdrawing John Terry, allowing him a standing ovation and handing the captain's armband to Lampard before he was also taken off for the crowd's appreciation. A touch of class from a class act. It would be nice if, as he hopes, it is au revoir rather than goodbye.
Chelsea 1 Leeds United 0
Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 41,276
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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